In dilapidated schools, excitement at prospect of new buildings

Long-held dreams of freshly painted walls, hallways bathed in natural light and classrooms buzzing with technology could become a reality in Baltimore as schools watch with cautious optimism as a financial plan to overhaul the district's buildings moves forward in the General Assembly.

"I didn't think it was going to happen," said Claralyn McCallister, the parent of a first-grader at Northwood Elementary School, whose 60-year-old building is slated for replacement in 2017. "I'm glad that things are being followed through."

The Northeast Baltimore school is one of 15 that would get new buildings under the plan that rapidly won approval Friday in the House of Delegates by a vote of 107-30. It would allow the district to borrow up to $1.1 billion to rebuild and upgrade the oldest school buildings in Maryland.

Northwood, officials say, is a prime example of the system's needs: The school has a strong academic program but serves about 100 more students than it can hold. The 667 students use all of the school's space as well as a portable trailer that houses 10 classes. The school, built in the 1950s, also isn't equipped with the infrastructure needed for computers and other technology.

"The world has advanced so much in 60 years," said Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer. "And this building doesn't accommodate kids who need a 21st-century education."

If the money is approved, the school district would do more in-depth studies to design each school, so Northwood students and teachers don't yet know what their new school might look like.

But they have plenty of ideas to offer.

"I envision a school where everyone is in the same building, where we don't have to put on coats to go from one side of the building to the other, where the music room has risers," said Erita Adams, Northwood's principal. "We make do with what we have, but we think: If you were a child, how would that make you feel?"

Lawmakers from across Maryland expressed similar sentiments when explaining their support for the plan that would require the state, city and school system to each contribute $20 million a year over at least 30 years to back bonds.

Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the investment in the city could "pay dividends for years to come."

The projects would be controlled by the Maryland Stadium Authority, which would build about 15 new schools and renovate about 35 more. The Senate is expected to take up the plan next week. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Friday that he's confident his chamber will approve the bill.

"I am elated that so many of our legislators and leaders continue to be supportive of our goal to create 21st-century buildings for our students," city schools CEO Andrés Alonso said in a statement Wednesday. "This is potentially something historic, great for the city and the state. We can't wait for the work to begin."

The plan was a scaled-back version of an earlier proposal by Alonso that would have committed the state to giving the city about $32 million per year over 30 years in the form of a block grant, which would have been used to fund bonds to cover an estimated $2.4 billion in infrastructure needs. The block grant proposal raised concerns because it essentially borrowed debt against debt and limited the state's flexibility in future budgets.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city's financial contributions helped to ensure that the new plan would move forward.

"The only reason we are at this point is because the city has skin in the game," she said. "I didn't go down there with the same proposal that I had last year. We put revenue on the table. We put increased investment on the table. That allowed us to get to the point where people from all over the state could see that we're serious."

Molly Rath, spokeswoman for the school system, said in an email that the district — which spends about $25 million a year on maintenance alone — would draw from "projected savings from better buildings and projected increases in revenue" to meet its $20 million-per-year contribution.

Rath said "as aging equipment gets replaced, this money can now go toward funding" the school system's 10-year plan to close and renovate schools and that "additional savings will be generated in energy efficiencies resulting from renovation and new construction."

She also said the school system anticipates that building closures will begin yielding about $10 million in savings in the 2016-2017 school year, and an increase in city and state revenue by that time. The legislation would also raise the system's debt capacity to $200 million, which would allow it to address maintenance costs that are currently paid for out of the operating budget, she said.

A report commissioned by the district that details every school building's needed repairs outlines roughly $16 million worth of deficiencies at Northwood. In 10 years, the building would cost $20 million to replace and $22 million to renovate, the report concluded.

The problems range from replacing the school's roof to its door handles, and everything in between. Pictures show mold and mildew lining the backs of auditorium seats, and water infiltrating walls and trash bins. At the time of observation, the school building's lack of a fire alarm or emergency exit signs violated fire codes.

As the school day ends at Northwood, students don't seem to notice the yellow walls peeking from behind colorful classwork and the duct tape barely holding in insulation from a pipe.

But during class, the shortcomings become a distraction, Northwood teachers say.

"One time a student stared at the ceiling the whole class," said Kimberly Dangerfield, who has taught first grade at the school for 13 years. "He was concentrating so hard on a tile that was hanging — and I know he was thinking: What if this falls?"

Dangerfield said she has watched her students tire from the heat, under extreme temperatures that can come at any time and any season, compliments of a defective boiler.

"There will be days in the winter when I have all of the windows open and the air conditioning on," she said. "I tell them to wear a short-sleeved shirt, a sweater and a jacket because you never know what you're going to get."

Baltimore Sun reporters Timothy B. Wheeler and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.